We all pile in the van and travel to the center, which serves as a clinic, a dining hall, a youth center, you name it—all in three very small rooms. We all sit down in a tiny room and meet about 10 kids between the ages of 13 through 19. Most live on the streets or in abandoned buildings or hide away in attics and basements. Nearly all of them struggle with injecting drug use, but some are now clean.
One of the boys I met, Maris, gave me hope. He had this tenderness about him and a genuine smile. He was also a natural salesman. He even asked for my phone number. It was hard to imagine that he started doing drugs when he was 14. At his lowest point, he was living in a condemned flat with a few of his friends doing 5 grams of heroin every day. He got involved in the street youth program gradually. At first, he just went there to eat and shower. Then, he started a rehab program. He relapsed but got clean again. And he became a student at the "mobile school."
Maris now volunteers at Humanitarian Action's center. He just recently got the documents necessary to rent an apartment, which he shares with a few other people. Meanwhile, Maris has one of the most important jobs at the street youth program: He recruits new kids to join the program.
The next person to share her story with us was far less hopeful—a young girl, who did not tell us her name. She was there with her two children. Two baby girls, one about 18 months and one who is just 2 months old. They live on the streets. Her story is incredibly painful. An orphan, she wandered the streets, using drugs, doing whatever she had to in order to survive. She got pregnant and had a baby, and the baby became very, very sick. The baby was taken from her and brought to a hospital, then another and finally was placed in an orphanage. She followed her child from hospital to hospital but was not allowed in. She told us that when her baby was finally taken away from her, she didn't want to live anymore. She would later give birth to the two girls we met at the center.
She doesn't know who any of the fathers are and didn't speak of the circumstances of her pregnancies. I know that sexual violence is a painful part of life on the streets for young girls. We don't press her for information, partly because we don't want her to have to relive it and partly because maybe we are afraid to hear what happened.
I see Wendy, my friend and a new mother herself tearing up. I fight back tears. I don't want to cry in front of the girl—I won't—so I excuse myself for a few minutes. Standing outside in the cold, the floodgates open. I imagine their lives. Her, a single mother living on the streets, no family, no home, no food, nothing...and those two beautiful girls being raised in such a difficult situation. It's hard for me to walk back in, but I do.
Back at the hotel, I can't stop thinking of the girl and her children and the many girls I have met on this trip. I won't sleep at all tonight.
Going to St. Petersburg